The Cinematic Legacy of World War I

The doomed, the defeated, and other antiwar heroes

War defines us. Its effects are sweeping and deeply personal, from the damage to individuals caught up in them to the diasporas begot in their wake. Tales of war are told and retold, poems, memoirs, novels, plays, songs, paintings, sculptures, films—from The Iliad to Antony and Cleopatra, from the Arc de Triomphe to Maya Lin’s Wall, from Rambo to War Horse. We are immersed in its landscapes and operate within its metaphors, constantly fighting some battle or another. The Great War, which began one hundred years ago this month in Europe, toppled three empires and redrew nation-states with borders still contentious to this day. It cost the lives of almost an entire generation and left the Lost Generation of poets, writers, and artists to make sense of it. It put nations of women to work and offered a glimpse of what economic freedom could mean. Fought with new technologies (the tank, the telegraph, the automatic weapon, poison gas, the aeroplane), it occurred just as communication (the radio, the telephone, newspapers, books, films) made its giant leap into mass media. It also tipped the balance of moviemaking power, devastating the European film industry and leaving Hollywood the big victor.

According to Stephen Ross’s Working Class Hollywood: “In 1914, the United States produced slightly more than half the world’s movies; by 1919, 90 percent of the films exhibited in Europe and nearly all of those shown in South America were made in the United States.” Nordisk studio, whose profits on films like The White Slave Trade and international star Asta Nielsen ushered in a golden age of Danish cinema, saw its output plummet. David Bordwell counts down the decline: 123 films in 1916, 61 films in 1917, 44 films in 1918, 39 in 1919, and 8 in 1920.” The resulting “exodus of talent” gave Carl Dreyer, a scriptwriter at the studio since 1912, the opportunity to direct. France’s Pathé, which ten years earlier was the “leading supplier of moving pictures on the American market,” found its domestic production virtually halted. Its biggest star, Max Linder, went first to Chicago then to Los Angeles in hopes of maintaining a career. (Linder later ended up another casualty of war, committing suicide a result, it is believed, of long-term depression suffered after serving.) In the 1920s, France became a hub for the avant-garde and fostered an artistic narrative tradition that marks its national cinema to this day. Germany, which too late recognized the propaganda value of movies, set up Ufa studios in the ashes of the war, which went on to make—and break—bank on historical epics and big-budget spy and science-fiction pictures. It nurtured talents—still recognized today by name—that pushed the unchained camera, chiaroscuro lighting, and street-film aesthetics to their narrative limits. Russia, whose Bolshevik Revolution succeeded largely because of opposition to WWI, briefly but vigorously cultivated new narrative and documentary forms and then pursued a national cinema in virtual isolation.

With World War II looming only 25 years into the future, it seems military tacticians were the only ones to have learned the lessons of the First World War, but novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers found endless fodder for their art and gave indelible form to its horrors: Rex Ingram’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; King Vidor’s epic antiwar film The Big Parade; Lewis Milestone’s adaptation of the German novel All Quiet on the Western Front; G.W. Pabst’s first sound film Westfront 1918, a masterful depiction of the German side; Jean Renoir’s unforgettable Le grand illusion; Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory; David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia; Peter Weir’s Gallipoli; Serge Bozon’s La France, to name but a few. Muddy trenches, barbed wire zigzagging across barren terrain, skeletal remains of machine-gunned forests and bombed-out villages, lines of infantry snaking their way to doom, row upon row of planted white crosses, became war’s grim iconography—and, at the center, its protagonists, assigned one clear duty: the renunciation of war’s most persistent and damaging fiction that there’s any glory in it.


The Dead
Abel Gance served in a French photography unit and was appalled by the fighting on the front, and his inability to capture any of it. “It was dangerous in the front line—a lot of cameramen had been killed—so we did all we could to keep out of harm’s way.” Thereafter batted around the military from one odd job to another, Gance was eventually sent home, sickly from work in poison gas factory. But even before he served, he had already had his fill. Letters from his friends described their harrowing existence in the trenches and news of their deaths often followed. In constant mourning, he began to develop an idea for an antiwar epic. J’accuse (1919) is often cited as the first major antiwar film, even if it is pro-French. (Alfred Machin’s much shorter Maudite soit la guerre, or War Is Hell (1914), shows fighting the Germans as akin to fighting a brother.) Two men in love with the same women have to make peace with each other in order to fight the enemy. The Hun is hardly present and, when he is, he’s portrayed as irretrievably bad. In one spectacular scene, a shadow of a German’s instantly recognizable helmet engulfs the captured French wife. But, near the end, the stark rows of crosses and rising dead, tinted in supernatural violet light, created a visual shorthand for the war’s tragic folly. Gance shot the scene with borrowed soldiers on eight days’ leave from Verdun.

Westfront 1918
Westfront 1918

The Defeated
On his way back to Paris from directing a play in New York City, G.W. Pabst, a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was detained by the French now officially at war. Pabst spent the next four years in an internment camp. His masterpiece about the war and his first sound film, Westfront 1918, was released the same year as Universal’s All Quiet on the Western Front, an adaptation of the widely read antiwar novel by German writer Enrique Maria Remarque. According to film historian Hans-Michael Bock, Westfront got lost in history, released during the tumultuous first year of the worldwide Depression. All Quiet’s controversial screenings in Germany didn’t help either. Goebbels sent his Brownshirts to Berlin theaters with “briefcases full of mice, stink bombs, and sneeze powder” to disrupt the screenings. Before long, both films were banned. (Years earlier, the Kaiser’s government had trenches dug outside the Reichstag so German citizens could get a taste of what it felt like to be on the front lines. The Fascists learned different lessons from WWI than everyone else.) Never mind, Pabst had already managed to convey his humanitarian, if pessimistic, message in 1925’s Joyless Street about what war does to the defeated, particularly its women, reduced to the joyless barter of body for bread. In her first film outside Sweden, Greto Garbo begins her long career of suffering on screen.

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The End of St. Petersburg

The Archetype
Vselovod Pudovkin also has long been identified along with compatriot director Eisenstein as a master of montage, both in theory and practice. Unlike Eisenstein who attempted to create a collective hero by casting what he called “types” and to stimulate intellectual associations in his films, Pudovkin opted for emotional responses to individual characters. Still, Pudovkin had mass consciousness in his heart and, in his three most famous films, built his stories around an archetype, the mother (Mother), the son (Storm Over Asia), and, in The End of St. Petersburg, a nameless peasant. Driven by starvation from the countryside, St. Petersburg’s young boy seeks work in a factory in the city and gets caught between his need to work and solidarity with his class. He chooses badly and his radicalization begins. When World War I breaks out, his choices become further limited and we next see him slumped over in the mud of the Eastern Front. (“Saxony –Württemberg – Bavaria”). Pudovkin himself had served in the artillery division of the Tsar’s Army. Wounded in 1915, he spent the next three years in a German P.O.W. camp, where his biographers says he learned English, Polish, and French, and, one assumes, learned a great deal about Europe’s working classes. Along with other Russians, he eventually escaped from the camp and made his way back to Moscow to find that the Bolsheviks had already been in power for a year. Upon its release, End of St. Petersburg was criticized for being “too abstract” to reach audiences. For today’s movieviewer it is quite easily grasped, but no less powerful. A row of heavily embroidered uniforms sits across from a row of finely tailored woolen suits as titles refer to the war as a “transaction.” An army of derby-topped stockbrokers madly rushing the trading floor is intercut with scenes of soldiers madly dying. The action is quickly paced and the plight of the masses quite moving. The main female character, who at first doesn’t see the need to share her family’s food, seems to learn the most relevant message of all.

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A Farewell to Arms

The Lover
Frank Borzage had tackled the war in two previous silents: Whom the Gods Would Destroy (1919), which his biographer Hervé Dumont called propaganda for Wilson’s League of Nations, and 1927’s 7th Heaven, about two Parisians united in poverty then, in the last 20 minutes of the film, separated by the war. Based loosely on Ernest Hemingway’s popular 1929 book, A Farewell to Arms (1932) uses the war as the catalyst for a story of undying love between an ambulance driver and a Red Cross nurse. They meet in a hospital, true to Hemingway’s original semiautobiographical story, and fall in inconvenient love. Shot in Borzage’s signature soft focus, the lovers, played by Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, exist beyond the war, in moments stolen in a makeshift bomb shelter, a garden arbor, or simply in each other’s arms. The war seems mere backdrop for the pair’s personal melodrama, as if it’s too distasteful a focus for Borzage. Not until the end, when Frederic abandons his duties and embarks on a long slog from Italy to Switzerland to find her, does the film bring us face to face with the ravages of warfare. To reach her, Cooper has to step over the dead. Upset by the changes to his story—most significantly, Frederic’s desertion out of love for Catherine rather than disgust at the war—Hemingway disavowed the film, replying to the studio’s offer for a private premiere, “Use your imagination on where to put the print—but do not send it here.” Hemingway is one of those contradictory creatures who condemned war but could not seem to get enough of it. Borzage made two more films about World War I and, later, one of the few anti-Nazi films to come out of Hollywood before the U.S. joined the fray, 1940’s The Mortal Storm, about another pair of lovers.

King and Country

The Deserter
Like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, King and Country depicts an unjust court-martial hastily mounted in the midst of war. Rather than illuminate the absurdities as they trickle down through the ranks, this Joseph Losey-directed English film centers on the dialogue between Dirk Bogard as the reluctant defending officer and Tom Courtenay as the young deserter. How to defend someone for shirking their duty when so many others don’t and how to condemn someone for trying to stay alive? Baroque with noirish tones, deep-focus photography, and layered mise-en-scène, this 1964 film is based on World War II correspondent and playwright James Lansdale Hodson’s novel Return to the Wood. But the film has all the hallmarks of a World War I film—mud, fear, and moral ambiguity. While Private Hamp supplies arguments (ever so passively) for his life, the soldiers in the unit who’ve captured him select a random rat from the distended belly of a dead horse for a show trial of their own. For the resolutely left-wing Losey, the film’s dual witch hunts had particular resonance. Hounded out of the States by HUAC, the former director with the Federal Theater Project found an artistic home first in Italy then in England where he made an unforgettable trio of films based on the work of Harold Pinter, two of which also starred Bogard. Like the films noir he’d made in the U.S. before his exile, King and Country is haunted by fatalism from the outset. The soldier’s lot is foreordained, but Captain Hargreaves sense of duty will never be the same.

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Life and Nothing But

The Dutiful
It’s October 1920 in France and the battlefields are still being cleaned up. Life and Nothing But’s Major Delaplane receives an order to deliver the body of an unidentified French soldier to be entombed as the Unknown Soldier. But maudlin pomp is not on Delaplane’s list of priorities. He is engaged in the long process of identifying the shell-shocked and getting an accurate count of the war dead. Shot widescreen in muted blues and grays, Life and Nothing But reveals the hard truths of war almost offhandedly, in throwaway moments and bits of dialogue. A chauffer brags about the money his family made supplying coffins. “Better than the Renaissance—the Resurrection,” exclaims a sculptor on the request for monuments in surrounding villages. A piece of rare fresh fruit plucked from the last living pear tree in Verdun is proffered. “Steel, copper, and gold,” says Delaplane, are the real reasons the army wants to collect the dead. In an interview with Cineaste after the 1989 release of the film, director Tavernier explained the story’s importance: “[T]he French figures have never been corrected. There is a difference of over 200,000 people reckoned today. We met a man from Verdun who told us how they always falsified the figures as an admitted propaganda effort to keep up the morale of the people. Even after the war, they did not want to face the truth. It is a subject that very few people in France have dealt with, and when they did, they could not get financing for their projects.” (To watch Paths of Glory, Tavernier says he had to travel to Belgium. Pressure from the French government delayed the release of the film in France until 1975.) Like Colonel Dax, Delaplane, as played by Phillipe Noiret, is incredulous at the barefaced duplicity of his superiors, but Noiret’s major is cantankerous and ribald, singing raunchy doggerel, drinking too much, and even half-heartedly pursuing sexual payoff á la Captain Renault. In the end, like Dax, Delaplane is resigned to his duty, summing up the sad truth of his station: “We plug up the holes and prepare for the next war.”

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Army of Crime

The Doomed
Missak Manouchian, driven from his home as a young boy by the Ottomans intent on eliminating the Armenians under the cover of World War I, explains to a young Jewish recruit who questions his orders in Robert Guédiguian’s 2009 feature Army of Crime: “Know what Hitler said in a Reichstag speech in 1936? He said, ‘Who remembers the Armenians now?’ My family vanished a long time ago.” Primarily a poet, he renounced revenge as unethical. But history had other plans and he finds himself in Paris during the Nazi occupation. He won’t take up a weapon and hasn’t even yet learned to shoot, but his beliefs won’t let him do nothing. He takes up command of a small band of saboteurs in the Resistance. Ragtag as his army is, Manouchian’s superiors expect results—they are paying salaries after all—and want something spectacular to get the press’s attention. Manouchian delivers and he and 22 others were caught and executed in February 1944. The Nazis distributed the famous L’affiche rouge that tried to discredit Manouchian’s fighters, labeling them the “Army of Crime.” Parisians knew the truth and defaced the posters with a corrective slogan: “They Died for France.” Seen through Manouchian’s eyes, the two biggest wars in the 20th century look like one long conflagration.

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The Real Thing
The stories of World War I movies were often based on the experiences of real soldiers. Gance drew on his own experience and his friends’ letters home for J’accuse. Hemingway was wounded in Italy and fell in love with a nurse. Paths of Glory is based on an actual French court martial. Missak Manouchian lived. Also, at the time, newsreel cameramen rushed to the front (Ernest Schoedsack, later of King Kong, among them) but, like Gance, found it either too dangerous to shoot—a camera must have been easily mistaken for a weapon in this newfangled war—or were forbidden by the military (under penalty of death). Still a few got through, among them Donald Thompson, who was made official cinematographer by the French government after begin wounded at Verdun. Kevin Brownlow describes his exploits in The War, The West, and the Wilderness but says that 70 percent of what Thompson shot was seized by the French and never made it into theaters. Scenes enacted for the camera at a safe distance from the enemy made up most newsreels for the home front. (See Thompson’s film Fighting the War to get an idea.) The centennial of the beginning of WWI has drawn attention to these artifacts, and European archives have created portals to make collections available online [European Film Gateway and Mission Centenaire, to name two]. Viewing them now, it makes sense that a government intent on waging war saw fit to ban them. In one sequence from a recently uncovered piece of amateur footage, a camera sits above a turn in a labyrinth of trenches. One man stationed at the top receives corpses, piling them onto a handcart, constantly readjusting them to fit more. For a brief second, the soldier, intent on the logistics of cargo loading, looks at the camera and, for the first time, seems to realize what the camera is seeing and lays a rag over one dead man’s face. A split second passes. The man loads another body.

— © Shari Kizirian

Original published July 28, 2014, on the editorial portion of Fandor’s website.

The Cinema Cure: Movies for What Ails Us

Workingman’s Death

Reading books was once seen as a dangerous activity, luring women, considered universally weak of constitution, into a proprietary-free fantasyland, and thwarting men from achieving maximum virility. Now, reading (including in the academic sense) is seen as an endangered activity, threatened first by the movies, next the TV, the video game, and now the Internet in general, and those concerned have harnessed the scientific method to prove reading worthwhile.

Tests range from an MRI taken while literature students are analyzing Mansfield Park as proof that reading stimulates critical thinking to how reading literature can help develop empathy; two functions perceived as crucial to a great society or at least a civil one. (It’s no accident that the first things burned are books and those who read them.) Now that visual literacy is equally important who says movies can’t have the same impact? The only science of movie watching I’ve heard of is a theory called persistence of vision, how the mind fills in gaps between projected images. Much has been made of this collective dream state, a kind of hypnosis induced by spending half the movie in the dark. What is watched in this supposedly suggestive state has caused all kinds of alarm (Violence! Drugs! Sex!) but has also been seen as an opportunity. (See A Clockwork Orange.)

Immigrants were believed to be socialized to American ways (read: Anglo-Saxon) as they crowded into the popular and cheap nickelodeons of the early 20th century. Films soon took a page from novels like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (slavery), Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit (debt), and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (food safety, labor laws) to directly address society’s ills, with varying degrees of success. Take two by Dorothy Davenport Reid. The Red Kimona was one of many films made to bring awareness to (and exploit the salaciousness of) the ‘white slave’ trade and Human Wreckage exposed the perils of morphine addiction, which had claimed the director’s husband.

For a time the Soviets certainly believed in the power of films to indoctrinate and created whole new languages to do so, from the intellectual montage of Sergei Eisenstein to the kinotruth of Dziga Vertov. (Later, what not to show became much more important.) Film noir, a product of Depression-era economics, war fatigue, pulp fiction, and the Blacklist, revealed our dark underbelly with its antihero in a chiaroscuro world requiring a more nuanced understanding of reality. Documentaries, for their part, have been betting on our suggestibility for years, hoping we’ll spring into action once the final, searing image fades on screen. After one hundred years of trying, widespread transformation eludes us. (How many Inconvenient Truths do we need to stop burning fossil fuels? How many antiwar movies to end war?)

Small change does occur. Think Errol Morris’s Thin Blue Line and the (eventual) exoneration of Randall Dale Adams. But if it’s true that watching Fox News breeds conservatism (See Manufacturing Consent), surely the opposite is also true. Years of rendering gays, lesbians, and the transgendered visible in the mainstream surely contributed to recent strides in equality under the law and Jewish Holocaust cinema helped to protect post-WWII Jewish culture.

How far can it go? Can a hate of housecats be softened by thousands of kittens prancing on YouTube? Can iPhone footage of cows unbolting barn doors turn carnivores into vegetarians? Can viral videos of police brutality bring justice to black lives? And what, if anything, will The Wasp and Furiosa do to mitigate misogyny and improve the self-image of our growing daughters? Whatever your hopes or fears about movies and their influence, there is no doubt that they shape us. But can they be the equivalent of literature, something complex that given our deep attention fires all the right neurons making us somehow better? Can movies cure what ails us?

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Rhino Season
The image from Bahman Ghobadi Turtles Can Fly of the horse struggling alone against the rushing current swung like an emotional wrecking ball at my heart. Ghobadi’s first film since escaping Iran has no less of an impact. Rhino Season depicts the shattered life of a Kurdish-Iranian political prisoner, jailed for almost thirty years and believed long dead. The diffuse light on the horizon dissolving into a hallucination of running with the rhinoceroses and the turtles raining down like rocks on stone now hang on permanent exhibit in my head. Ultimately about the impossible contortions inflicted by tyrants, the film can’t be seen by Iran’s current tyrants but those closer to home certainly can.

The Great Man

The Great Man
If Sarah Leonor’s film about the return of two French Foreign Legionnaires from war doesn’t move you then check your MRI for signs of an empathectomy. She starts by building the myth of Hamilton and Markov, two scouts and their heroic exploits in Afghanistan. When the pair go home we move in closer to discover their civilian selves and wait to see if their unit will still hold. Even though they both live in Paris their worlds couldn’t be more different, and battle on another front begins. Spare and restrained, this is no tearjerker but, in less than two hours, Leonor makes the case for humane immigration reform in any country.

Workingman's Death01

Workingman’s Death
Maybe it’s all only catharsis and movies are already helping to do bare maintenance, keeping another Dark Age at bay. Furiosa kicking the shit out of series of pewter-lipped war boys prevents us from going all Mad Max on each other. It could always be worse, after all, and this document of manual labor by the late Michael Glawogger shows us that it currently is in parts of the Ukraine, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and China. Exquisitely photographed, its incongruent beauty collides with the drudgery (and horror) of subsistence living and proves that you can reach the viewer with collective subjects. The resilience of these workers in the face of the harshest realities has the power not only to move you but also to earn your respect.

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Hard to Be a God
Imagine the apocalypse and someone somewhere surviving in a cave long enough to devise a way to warn whatever civilization builds on our bones how to avoid our great mistake. What form will it take? Word-of-God parables, fairy tales, or, maybe, our modern equivalent, science fiction? If so, then Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God is the message to send. It doesn’t get any more dystopic than the sludge, snot, and sickly filth of this feudal planet in a future without art. An allegory of the Soviet past, it also scarily resembles Europe’s Dark Ages, the arbitrary justice of almighty nobles, the suffering of everyone else, not to mention the total lack of public sanitation. The cautions of fairy tales usually go unheeded (don’t touch anything; don’t look back; don’t cut down the last tree) so, as difficult (and disgusting) as it is, don’t look away from German’s muck-caked vision of humanity—this is one future we don’t want to repeat.

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You, the Living
Or, as Preston Sturges proposes in Sullivan’s Travels, maybe movies’ best ambition is to makes us laugh. Whether it’s Pluto stuck in the fly paper or Buster stoic amid the ruins of storm-tossed house, other people’s troubles seem to be the funniest. In Roy Andersson’s film, the chuckles come from the absurd. In 2007’s You, the Living, our very dreams are the butt of the joke. One woman’s dream is to be understood; yet she cries while ignoring the one man who could. Another man dreams he’s standing trial for destroying a banquet of heirloom china in an ill-advised parlor trick. The deadpan executioner tells the prankster as he’s about to be electrocuted: “Try to think about something else.” Not merely setups for one-liners, Andersson’s situations offer plenty to contemplate; even in his sparsely appointed sets the deep, diagonal compositions are rich in amusement. But you have to pay attention.

— © Shari Kizirian 2015

Originally published September 29, 2015, on the editorial pages of Fandor’s website

Finding Jacques Feyder

The undeserved obscurity of a master filmmaker

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Carnival in Flanders

At a conference on silent film some years ago, a small subset of international scholars congregated outside the auditorium for a non-coffee-drinking coffee break. The neophyte and established hailing from Madrid, São Paulo, Berkeley, and Montreal bunched together and rather openly plotted a crime. “You’ve seen that?” “Yes, I have, last year.” Someone else interested in the title drifted over, latching onto the word “have.” “Oh, I don’t have it have it. I saw it at a festival.” Interested parties still on alert, asked, “Do you know how I could get a copy?” Everyone shrugged. Three members of the impromptu gathering broke off and headed out to the host city’s commercial district where one of them knew where to procure bootlegs, fast, cheap, and under no one’s control. “How many can we carry?” someone asked. “Five, I think, but I can hide some in my checked bag.” And off they went, leaving the rest of us to our regularly scheduled afternoon program.

Had I joined them, I would have looked for some Jacques Feyder. He’s one of those recognized masters it’s almost impossible to see outside of France, where I assume his films, saved from Nazi flames by the heroic Henri Langlois and Marie Epstein, are more readily available. Finding any Feyder where I live has tested my hunting skills (on high, dusty video store shelves, by Googling, Vimeoing, Vuzing, you name it) and law-abiding tendencies to their maximum. While the Internet yielded some treasures, it was a paltry bounty compared to the Belgian-born director’s lengthy, varied career.

I’ve not seen, for example, Le grand jeu or Pension Mimosas, recognized as the beginnings of France’s poetic realism movement that included the films of Vigo, Carné, and some Duvivier. Making them even more covetable, they are two of seven films written by Charles Spaak, Feyder’s onetime secretary turned longtime collaborator who went on to write, among other classics, Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion.

Knight Without Armour
Knight Without Armour

Nor could I find Feyder’s circus film, neither the German version Fahrendes Volk nor the French, Les gens du voyage, both of which he directed. Nor his Alexander Korda-produced Knight Without Armor about the Russian Revolution, starring Marlene Dietrich and Robert Donat, which Variety proclaimed was the only picture on the subject to depict what it was really like. A proclamation probably euphemized from this reviewer, who unwittingly makes the film even more enticing: “the butchery also begins to reach senseless proportions by the time the film is half unreeled … The direction of Jacques Feyder is fair enough. At least it moves.”

My failures mount. I could not get ahold of any of his four American-made films. Two starring international screen phenomenon Greta Garbo—The Kiss* (her last silent) and the German-language version of Anna Christie (her first talkie)—remain, incredulously, out of my reach. I have seen a brief clip from Daybreak, with Ramon Novarro, also star of Feyder’s other American film, Son of India). In an extended tracking shot taken alongside a horse-drawn carriage, an Austrian army officer woos a reluctant female. Near the end of the scene, when Novarro’s handsome face edges sweetly into the frame, both players now in the carriage, we know the conquest is almost complete.

Even out of context and rather crappy-looking, the six-minute sequence on YouTube upends the rusty notion that early sound films were uniformly bad. The original novel, by Arthur Schnitzler, is a tragedy—the womanizing lieutenant commits suicide—but the MGM film has a happy ending, an occurrence of such regularity when under contract to Louis B. Mayer that Feyder could not have been surprised. Years later, he described the process of making films in the studio system as so efficient (“grinding,” he wrote) that it nullified any fresh artistic point of view, resulting in films “that an American director would have made in pretty much the same way.” Novarro felt differently and ranked the director alongside Ingram, Lubitsch, and Murnau.

Finding Feyder_Daybreak-Wordpress

Nor does a comprehensive biography exist in English of Feyder. References to his life and career can be found scattered in French cinema history books, Richard Abel’s volumes on French criticism, biographies of others, and most thoroughly in Lenny Borger’s notes for the Pordenone Film Festival catalog and Flicker Alley’s DVD set “French Masterworks: Russian Émigrés in Paris 1923–1928.” I have liberally cribbed throughout.

Born Jacques Léon Louis Frédérix in Ixelles, Belgium, he dutifully attended military school in the early 1900s but then spurned his father’s insistence on respectability and became an actor instead. He had the decency to move to Paris to do so and thoughtfully changed his name to obscure his reputable origins.

He acted in several Gaumont shorts and Episode V of Feuillade’s serial Les Vampires lists Feyder in the credits as “un invité chez Mortesalgues” — one among the many mustached men attending a birthday party thrown by the evil Baron. I like to think that’s Feyder in the foreground near the end of the episode, raising his hand to his head, demonstrating the effects of the sleep-inducing gas. This subtle gesture, in stark contrast to the histrionics of his pantomime-mad peers, befits Feyder, an early proponent of naturalistic acting.

At Gaumont, he learned how to do everything related to moviemaking, directing 20 or so shorts and becoming what he later called a “craftsman.” He also began his lifelong collaboration with actress, and wife, Françoise Rosay, a lovely and sure on-screen presence who often appeared in his comedies. His last Gaumont film, about a job hunter who breaks into an office after-hours to correct a mistake on a job application, turned out to be “too eccentric” and the company let him go, clearing the way, according to one historian, for “the birth of a great film artist.” Feyder had also contributed the film’s scenario, beginning a career-long practice of writing or adapting texts for his own projects.

In 1920, Feyder made his first feature-length film, with money borrowed from a cousin. Running 162 minutes (on YouTube), L’Atlantide might be the longest calling-card film on record, and, in its making, Feyder may have accumulated the experiences of an entire career. He schlepped his cast and crew to the Sahara (for eight months!) to shoot an adaptation of the popular novel by Pierre Benoît and the least of his woes among budget overruns and on-location hardships was the rapid weight gain of his female star, Stacia Napierkowska, who, the costume designer complained, was in need of constant fittings. The film, like the book, was a “smash hit,” according to Richard Abel, as moviegoers of the time had grown accustomed to sprawling historical epics on the order of Pastrone’s trend-setting Cabiria and D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.


Critics, on the other hand, found much bad along with the good. Louis Delluc was blunt: “There is one great actor in this film, that is the sand.” Léon Moussinac used his review to school Feyder on international cinema: “[He] undoubtedly knows nothing of the Swedish films, Arne’s Treasure or The Outlaw’s Wife before guiding his valiant caravan into the vast sands of the Sahara his work would have been different and more complete.” He then gives due credit to Feyder for freeing the film from studio confines, what the director himself disparaged as “fakery.”

“Each time that he makes the desert participate in the drama,” Moussinac wrote, “the work strangely soars.” The sagging middle aside, I, too, was mesmerized by the desert’s presence, the two French soldiers smoking on their isolated veranda, the sands stretched to the horizon, the dazzling Algerian sun forever setting in the distance. From the very beginning, Feyder had a lyrical touch.

Feyder took these criticisms to heart when making Visages d’enfants, cowritten with Rosay and starring child-actor find Jean Forest, about a young boy who must adjust to his new stepmother and stepsister. Shot on location in 1923 in the Swiss Alps, the movie borrows Stiller and Sjöström-esques landscapes: paths cut through snow-covered mountains and quaint villages below where lifetimes pass to the rhythms of the harvest. In one particularly memorable scene, search lanterns daub the pitch-black night sky like faintly bobbing stars.

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Visages d’enfants

Dramatic action like the kind used by Swedes (or Americans) comes in the form of a third-act avalanche and a denouement in white water rapids. But Visages d’enfants is mostly a knowing portrait of family life from a kid’s point of view. In a heartfelt moment, an angry young Jean takes out his dead mother’s dress and arranges it to simulate her form, taking care to properly crease the pleats. Feyder is able to draw understated, treacle-free performances from both Jean and the little girl who plays his younger sister and keeps his camera, when necessary, at a safe distance.

1925’s Gribiche, Feyder’s first of two great comedies made at Albatros, the Montreuil-based studio started by Russian émigrés fleeing the Bolsheviks, features Forest in the title role and Feyder’s wife as an American widow who takes over a boy’s upbringing so he has a better chance at respectability. It’s laugh out loud funny and the story takes surprising turns. (It’s also an eye-opening look at French child-rearing practices—a boy sits alone at a café sipping wine!) For Albatros, it fulfilled Feyder’s promise as a visual artist who could appeal to wide audiences.

His follow-up, Carmen, almost ruined him. It starred Spanish diva Raquel Meller, from whom Feyder could coax nary a naturalistic moment or even an on-screen kiss. It was, by all accounts, a dud. He left Albatros (or Albatros left him) and turned back to a project he’d started years before, an adaptation of another Pierre Benoît book, Le roi lépreux, to be made on location in Indochina. When financing definitively fell through, a German producer offered him the career-defining Thérèse Raquin.

An adaptation of the Émile Zola’s novel, Raquin is the film that landed him the MGM invitation by production chief Thalberg. It’s one of the many of films I haven’t seen, but few alive have. The French Cinémathèque says it’s lost (though Mubi has a hope-inducing still and description) and others sadly confirm it. Unless it turns up we’ll never know exactly what about it redeemed his Carmen failure in the eyes of Albatros, which invited him back to the Montreuil, where he shared studio space with René Clair, then making his own career-changing film, The Italian Straw Hat. The whimsy must have been contagious. Feyder’s comedy about two parliamentarians in love with the same ballerina, Les nouveaux messieurs, slowly reveals itself to be about the nature of power and who really gets the girl. Still, Thalberg’s invite came just in time, as director’s warm French welcome was already running cold again. The government banned Nouveaux messieurs because the portrayals of some of the more craven politicians were apparently a little too true to life.

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Feyder was already on the boat, Lenny Borger tells it, more than eager to try the American way. In a 1925 article, Feyder had chided French critics offended by the 1923 adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and praised Hollywood scriptwriters Frances Marion and Jeannie Macpherson and German transplants Carl Mayer and Hanns Kräly. “There’s no point, then, in crying about sacrilege; instead let’s be astonished at the scriptwriter’s ingenuity.” He later worked with both Kräly (The Kiss) and Marion (in the bloody Knight Without Armour), for better or worse.

However, his best was yet to come. After he returned to Europe, he continued his independent rather itinerant way of working, directing Le grand jeu and Pension Mimosas, sometimes even with the same collaborators — Rosay, set designer Lazare Meerson, assistant Marcel Carné (who had been with him since Nouveaux messieurs) and the scriptwriter Charles Spaak.

Once, when touring the set of Le grand jeu with the director just as shooting was about to start, Spaak expressed consternation at all the noisy activity compared to the quiet when the two of them were turning the idea into the script. Feyder smiled and replied, in the polished retelling by Spaak: “To direct a film is to defend its meaning against all these people who work around us, and against the performers who are soon to take up their places on the newly finished set. It requires holding on to the original conception, which will threaten to slip away amidst … the clouds of plaster and the sound of hammers. What a battle it was in the first place to get the material resources to film our story. And now what a battle it will be not to end up a prisoner of those resources.”

The world seemed to take notice of his films for the first time, sensing the beginning of a new movement later dubbed poetic realism. His 1936 comedy Carnival in Flanders earned him the best director prize at the fourth annual Venice Film Festival. Watching a rather a crystalline transfer, on YouTube, without English translation, I grasped what I could, which, according to one critic for the Daily News, was more than enough to appreciate its splendor. “You don’t have to understand one word of the film’s language to get its delicious flavor,” reads Wanda Hale’s review, excerpted in the hopeful distributor’s pressbook aimed at U.S. audiences famously adverse to subtitles.

La Kermesse Heroique

It takes place in a 17th century Belgian village under military occupation by the tax-hungry Spanish king. The first ten minutes alone is a tour-de-force of camera movement, economic storytelling, and character establishment. The impeccable sets, rich in references to the Flemish masters, were designed by Meerson. “The museums,” one French critic exclaimed at the time, “have descended into the streets and have come teemingly alive.” Feyder’s trademark subtle humor is also on view from the outset. A child’s bow-and-arrow hits its mark, the maid’s bustle, but the reaction only comes when the boy pries the weapon from the target. Deeper ironies unfold as the men retreat from responsibility and the women step in to deal with the greedy invaders.

World War II found Feyder in Switzerland, where he directed his final film, Une femme disparaît, which, I’ve read, spookily foreshadows Hitchcock’s Vertigo in its portrayal of a man determined to transform a woman into another he truly loves. He wasn’t out of film altogether. He wrote the script for Macadam and served as consulting director for Maturareise. He wrote his memoirs, including one coauthored with Rosay, Le cinéma, notre métier. He died in Switzerland in 1948 in the midst of a new realism, ten years before the New Wave. These upstarts found his work too stodgy and Feyder began his long, rather permanent obscurity.

Feyder’s protégé Marcel Carné, whose beginning of Children of Paradise has striking similarities to Carnival in Flanders, paid another homage to his mentor. In 1953, he updated, with the help of Charles Spaak, the story of a woman married to the wrong man, the readily available Thérèse Raquin.

* The Kiss has since come out on DVD, which I bought from my favorite video store at its going-out-of-business sale.

— © Shari Kizirian

Originally published September 14, 2014, in the editorial section of Fandor’s website

A Love Story for the 21st Century: Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways

Love hardly ever conquers all

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It’s 1989 and the assistant director on some shoot in Montreal calls it a wrap and walks through the soundstage toward an exit where she makes brief eye contact with a visitor waiting on the set. He approaches, offering a handmade trinket we’ve seen before and wondered about as it was placed on the ridge of a bathroom sink. Alone together, framed by increasingly tighter close-ups, the pair begin to banter, tossing out tidbits that will become the inside jokes of their relationship to come. Names are exchanged. The music rises.

It’s the giddy beginning, but by the time this “meet-cute” appears in the film the audience well knows it’s over. If you are older than forty you might hear echoes of the “Your girl is lovely, Hubbell” scene that famously ends The Way We Were. If you are under forty you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. Either way, this sweeping romance by Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan will seem completely familiar to you and yet still completely fresh.

Laurence loves Fred and Fred loves Laurence and the early scenes reinforce their cloistered existence. Their colorful joyous world is presented in tightly framed shots. Cocooned in a small car as rain pours riotously down, they giggle madly adding to the list of “things that minimize pleasure.” They hang out on the bed under the androgynous gaze of the Mona Lisa, dust motes dancing in the early morning sunlight.

If a communist with unruly hair from the Lower East Side and a privileged preppie with literary aspirations can’t make it together in this world, surely the fun-loving Frédèrique and rising intellectual star Laurence have a better shot at it. But when Laurence reveals to Fred that he was born the wrong gender, their love bubble bursts.

No amount of inside jokes or soft-focus backgrounds can shield the lovers from what’s coming, and Dolan simultaneously girds us and disarms us with the film’s epic-worthy aesthetics, the slowly approaching camera (reminiscent most recently of compatriot Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies) and long distance “tunnel” shots, down wood-paneled hallways, across the manicured street, or from the far end of a blue-hued bar, everyone waiting for someone to appear from offscreen with a solution. Closets full of clothes, gushing water, winter snow, and autumn leaves descend from the heavens in surreal tableaux.

With the meticulous costuming and sets of a Douglas Sirk film, Dolan’s convincing melodrama takes us through the makeups and breakups of this romance that can only exist apart from the rest of the world. Like Jane Wyman’s decorous widow in love with gardener Rock Hudson, like the white-bred Hubbell and the Jewish K-K-Katie, or Madame Olenska and the upright Newland Archer in the suffocating upper-crust milieu of 19th century New York, lovers cannot survive simply because they love. Love, melodrama has demonstrated time and again, hardly ever conquers all.

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Dolan never plays down the distinctiveness of Laurence and Fred’s troubles and shows the reactionary horrors (getting fired, gut-kicked in alleyways) alongside the pockets of defiant glory (the Rose Family’s baroque sanctuary). Both Fred and Laurence walk the “gauntlet” in separate scenes that punctuate the harsh judgment of their coworkers, friends, family, strangers, themselves.

But Dolan also treats as commonplace what the mainstream still considers unusual. The film shoot of Fred and Laurence’s meet-cute scene features two tuxedoed men under a glistening chandelier where a mainstream film would feature a straight couple, a man in black-tie with a woman in a evening gown. Fred buys Laurence a wig to show her support but Laurence wears it only when she’s around. Through the expressive Suzanne Clément, Dolan presents Fred as valiant and, through the restrained Melvil Poupaud, Laurence’s struggle is relatable, mainly because the story never asks why. It just is.

In interviews given when the film first opened, director Dolan cited James Cameron’s Titanic as the touchstone for Laurence Anyways. Not only for its star-crossed lovers but also for the framing device that places Rose and Jack’s story in a class-conscious past. (Except for a Céline Dion song—in French—the similarities end there, so don’t worry.)

Laurence Anyways takes place over the 1990s, with its wide-lapelled clothes, its angular hair styles, its coke-saturated nighttimes, its music-video aesthetics. By making this a period film, Dolan exhibits a kind of optimism, assigning the obstacles to Fred and Laurence’s true love to history, as old-fashioned as opera glasses, the curbside horse-and-carriage, and the “super-terrestrial twilight” of the Old New York society that kept Archer from doing more than removing Madame Olenska’s glove to kiss her bare hand.

In one scene, Fred, in the early stages of acceptance, insists to her acid-tongued sister that yes our generation can handle it. If not us, then who? If not now, then when? In our new century, Laverne Cox and Transparent get Emmy recognition and Caitlyn Jenner graces the cover of Vanity Fair. But transgender is still the lead story. Their accomplishments of becoming women displace their accomplishments as women. At the very end of Laurence Anyways, Laurence’s transition is complete. She’s being interviewed about her new book. But the journalist can’t get past her gender. Laurence’s impatience shows. She’s tired of waiting. But it’s also not the most important thing on her mind—and there’s a window of hope that what we thought was the end might instead be a new beginning.

— Shari Kizirian © 2015

Originally published in June 2015 on Fandor’s online blog.


Starring … the Stunt Artist

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Uma Thurman and Zoë Bell on the set of Kill Bill

Before CGI, variously colored screens, and insurance agents changed the game, stars risked life, limb, and future income in daring stunts to dazzle movie audiences. Sure, actors still get hurt. Halle Berry broke her arm on the set of Gothika, George Clooney injured his spine making Syriana, Jackie Chan probably has damaged every part of himself, even once getting a shard of his skull embedded in his brain. But now as the pyrotechnics have gotten louder and the choreography more convoluted filmmakers don’t seem to have to break an actual sweat to achieve verisimilitude. They can simply graft Natalie Portman’s head onto a ballerina’s body. Tricks, or better, illusions, have always been employed to achieve stunts, in the form of mattes and wires and double exposure, but in the celluloid era if you had to leap from one horse to another or jump out of a moving car and wanted it to look real, you merely did it, even if you had to do it very carefully.



Standing Perfectly Still: Steamboat Bill Jr.
Tossed around the vaudeville stage as part of his family’s act since the age of three, Buster Keaton was twice inspected by New York doctors who, he recalled years later, “stripped me to examine for bruises and broken bones.” As an adult he might have gone to the doctor more often but kept on working even after fracturing his vertebra during a stunt in 1924’s Sherlock Jr. He didn’t realize until 14 years later when a physician happened to take an X-ray for an unrelated problem. He only once used a stuntman, for College, when he sensibly contracted an Olympian to pole vault through a window—“I mean, you’ve got to get someone who knows what they are doing.” He even doubled for another actor on a motorcycle stunt in the same perilous Sherlock Jr. Still, today, his fans marvel at the absence of a smile on the Great Stone Face when they should rather wonder how he managed not to grimace considering the strain he endured. In Steamboat Bill Jr. alone he falls off a plank onto an adjoining boat then finally hits the water, lands on his head in a fierce storm, jumps out of a moving car, and clings for dear life on the trunk of an uprooted tree cast about by the wind. In this 1928 masterpiece of comic timing, his gags escalate in complexity and daring. Each sequence is seamless, arduous, and hilarious. It seems almost a shame that for his most renowned stunt he is actually doing nothing—only standing, on the exact right spot. Watch the entire gasp-inducing sequence, from the façade of a house falling around him through another house entirely engulfing him.

Some Carefully Placed Help: The Thief of Bagdad
Like Keaton, Fairbanks was a do-it-yourselfer when it came to stunts. The King of Hollywood employed a double, but instead of having a substitute on camera, he watched him work out the stunt in rehearsal then stepped in when it came time to shoot, mimicking the routine. A health nut (despite his chain-smoking!) and advocate for temperance, Fairbanks exercised everyday at a studio gym and used his celebrity to promote physical fitness. But his ease on screen is not solely because of his practiced athleticism. According to frequent collaborator Allan Dwan who directed three of Fairbanks’s swashbuckling films, A Modern Musketeer, and Robin Hood, and The Iron Mask: “Every set that we built I measured for handholds. They were always there and he would automatically feel for them. If he jumped it was just exactly the distance he could gracefully jump. Never a strain.” More known for its elaborate stunts and special effects — a flying carpet (dangling off an 80-foot crane), a flying horse, and a rope-climbing trick1924’s The Thief of Bagdad also includes a relatively uncomplicated stunt, achieved with the kind of carefully placed help Dwan described. Early on, Fairbanks swipes the magic rope of Jinn and eludes capture by leaping through a series of outsize jars with the aid of some small trampolines. It’s just a few seconds of screen time but astonishes nonetheless. At less than ten minutes in of this two-and-a half-hour movie, Fairbanks’s agile thief is just starting to roll.

Hanging On for Dear Life: The Outlaw and His Wife
Before Hollywood changed his name to Seastrom, Victor Sjöström was already a force in international cinema, impressing the world with affecting and restrained performances and on location shooting that integrated the Swedish countrysides and wilderness as part of the story. Along with the Finnish-born Mauritz Stiller and the rarely cited Georg af Klercker, Sjöström ushered in Sweden’s Golden Age of Cinema, which sadly burned out by the mid-’20s. But before then he had been directing six to seven films a year, acting in many of them. 1918’s The Outlaw and His Wife was produced by the studio that had nurtured these directors’ talents invested further in their ideas, producing films based on Nordic literature and paying for location shoots to take advantage of the striking Nordic landscapes. When Outlaw came out, critics rhapsodized: “Here without a doubt is the most beautiful film in the world,” wrote French filmmaker and critic Louis Delluc. “Victor Sjöström has directed it with a lavishness that transcends all analysis.” That lavishness is the result of painstaking setups and photography and Sjöström, already known for his perfectionism, was such a stickler for authenticity that he did his own stunt work in the leading role. When the fugitive couple take refuge in the mountains of Swedish Lapland, Sjöström’s character finds himself hanging perilously off an unforgivingly high cliff and the actor/director nearly fell to his death. Sjöström recalled in his diary: “… the hook that was holding me had straightened out as a result of rubbing against the cliff edge—and the next instant … yes, I have never been in such mortal danger as I was then.” See a man risk it all for his art.

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S.O.S. Iceberg

Save Our Stunts: S.O.S. Iceberg
German director Arnold Fanck had pioneered extreme location filmmaking with his silents featuring real-life slope-jockey Luis Trenker performing his own ski stunts. Sought out for their combination of adventure, drama, and documentary style shooting in actual mountain ranges, Fanck’s films were an immediate sensation and spawned a subgenre of popular bergfilmes. For his final silent picture, S.O.S. Iceberg—sound was added later but mute it and rely on the subtitles for a more satisfying experience—he chose a different but no less challenging setting, western Greenland’s frozen fjords (in German, a different kind of “berg”) and enlisted explorer Knud Rasmussen and local Inuits to help him. He imported “three airplanes, forty tents, two motorboats, a couple tons of luggage, and two polar bears from the Hamburg zoo” for the production. But he was ultimately unable to film the actors traversing the fjord on actual icebergs as he had wished. The Inuit wisely refused to put their canoes among them, knowing how quickly the unstable formations can capsize anything in their wake. Once, Fanck almost lost a man, hopping from one to another in a trial run. He had to retreat to the Swiss Alps (and later the studio) to get much of the necessary shots. Still, the footage early in the film of mighty glaciers shedding enormous chunks of themselves lend a verisimilitude to the adventure. If you aren’t yet inured to seeing our world melt, the awesome “birth of an iceberg” sequence should thrill as much as it did audiences back then. If that seems humdrum, watch two out of the three airplanes get trashed. German dare-devil and future Luftwaffe test pilot Ernst Udet did all the flying, and the cast includes Nazi poster girl and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, making her final appearance as an actress (and stuntwoman). She smartly came away with innovative S.O.S. camera assistant Hans Ertl, who later shot her Olympia films.

Mabel Normand Wheels Around
“In those days,” writes Michael Sragow in an early chapter of his biography of Hollywood director Victor Fleming, “knowing how to drive a car was as crucial to the makers of outdoor adventures as knowing how to ride a horse.” Fleming, who got his start in the movies fixing Allan Dwan’s complicated car—“one of your tappet valves is stuck,” he said to the director in 1912 after hearing his Mitchell Six pull up—recalls that “few actors knew how to drive and not many cared to attempt it. As a result, those of us who could drive were invariably used to double for the stars in those early thrill scenes when automobiles were in the picture.” That a woman, comedienne Mabel Normand, was at the wheel of a car in 1914 for Mabel at the Wheel was probably a sufficient source of comedy to American audiences of the time. That she was racing for Santa Monica’s Vanderbilt Cup, side-splittingly revolutionary. Though it might not be her (we can’t see her face, the telltale sign) spinning out in the racetrack oil slick, she is clearly seen driving in and out of the pit, cruising around, and, in one sequence, racing another auto. Pause for a moment, too, to reflect on Charles Chaplin as a bumbling villain.

Double Dare, or How to Be Set on Fire and Live to Tell the Story
Women have been performing stunts since the early days of cinema. The serial queen Pearl White rode on horseback to the rescue more often than not without use of a double. Real-life flyer Pancho Barnes enhanced the authenticity of Howard Hughes’s aviation saga, Hell’s Heroes, which cost the lives of three stunt pilots and injured Hughes himself. (You can learn about this unconventional woman first reclaimed from history by Tom Wolfe’s novel Right Stuff in The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club.) Michelle Yeoh has kicked a lot of Hong Kong ass. Still today, however, women stunt performers have a harder time and are much rarer than their male counterparts. Amanda Micheli’s documentary Double Dare profiles two Hollywood stuntwomen, pioneer Jeannie Epper and up-and-comer Zoë Bell, showing us not only the challenges of making it in a sexist profession but also how damned hard it is to do the stunts, whatever the performer’s gender. Watch the first couple seconds of the documentary to see Bell being set on fire as she spins horizontally from a rope on the set of Xena the Warrior Princess to get the idea. Following Bell as she pursues a Hollywood career, Micheli goes behind the scenes of Quentin Tarantino’s martial arts epic Kill Bill and viewers come away with the sensation, perhaps spot on, that, in the finished film, we will watch much more of Bell’s bloodied bride than we will of Uma Thurman’s. The documentary also provides a good primer on the history of the stunt performer in American movies and their fight for recognition.

Herbert Ponting “kinematographing” off the prow of the Terra Nova, December 1910

The Cameraman as Stunt Artist
Sometimes it is the person behind the camera performing the derring-do in order to deliver the gasp-inducing image. The dangers of shooting either fiction or documentary was painfully illustrated earlier this year with the death of camera assistant Sarah Elizabeth Jones on location at a Georgia railroad track. Setting aside any carelessness on the part of the production in this instance, risking life and limb has been the hallmark of shooters since cinema’s inception. Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) was heavily promoted using cameramen Paul Allen and Alexander G. Penrod’s stories about photographing a whaling expedition out of New Bedford. (Sadly, none of the exciting footage made it into the film. One historian speculates it was fogged up once developed. The reshoots in the Caribbean are tame by any standards.) Penrod himself later died shooting B-roll for 1931’s The Viking when that ship exploded among the Labrador ice floes. Among many other imprudent acts, Herbert Ponting tied himself off the bow of the Terra Nova to capture the vessel breaking the mighty Antarctic ice for The Great White Silence, released in 1924. As audiences became accustomed to cinema’s dramatic arcs their demand for greater and greater action led filmmakers and their cameramen to take greater and greater risks. Watch the angle an unnamed cameraman (I assume) gets in 1933’s Around Cape Horn in a Square Rigger. The storm is surging, the hatches all battened down, and no other personnel can be seen on deck. It’s bold, stupid, and, from a viewer’s vantage, well worth it. Still, it makes you grateful for digital technologies that, 80 years later, allowed the Leviathan filmmakers to transfer physical risks to the tiny cameras attached to the ship and its fishermen.


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A Truly Wondrous Horse: The King of the Wild Horses
I wrote about Rex before in “They Trip Horses, Don’t They,” but he clearly merits another mention here among stars as stunt performers. Cowboys and trick riders are appreciated (at least now) for their performances in the early westerns, but this magnificent black stallion deserves better renown, as his rewards are even more ephemeral than a weekly paycheck. A rescue living at a detention center for boys in Colorado, he was used as a getaway by a runaway who later turned up dead—the horse took all the blame and Rex was marked as a killer. Producer Hal Roach’s animal wranglers discovered him before he was put down, recognized his appeal, and began to promote him as Rex the Wonder Horse. In his first picture, The King of the Wild Horses (1924), he proves himself worthy of the gamble, making a spectacular leap across a ravine with what appears to be zero prompting (and certainly no trampoline!). Maybe this temperamental animal responded to offscreen direction. Or maybe he just loved to jump. But whatever. He simply leapt. And far. Rex did have doubles, not for stunts but for close shots with human actors, as he was fussy about his company. Watch the chase scene, which culminates in the jaw-dropping stunt.

— Shari Kizirian © 2014

Originally published on Fandor in July 2014


On the Street Where He Lives

Kleber Mendonça Filho Films Locally, Stirs Globally with Neighboring Sounds

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If he had been asked as a child to draw a picture of a taxicab, Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho says he would have drawn the Yellow Cab ubiquitous on the streets of New York City, and in American films. The film critic turned filmmaker, who grew up in Recife, the urban center of the state of Pernambuco on Brazil’s sunbaked northeastern coast, says his childhood was steeped in “images of all kinds from faraway places, mostly Hollywood.”

American cinema’s influence is evident in his fiction feature debut, Neighboring Sounds (O som ao redor, 2012), his country’s submission for the 2013 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, which induces a slow-burning anxiety like the widescreen suspense of Roman Polanski and John Carpenter. “Some films are like microbes in your head,” he tells me in an interview in October 2012 after Neighboring Sounds played at the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival. “Whatever you do after you see it comes back to that film.”

Utterly fresh, compelling, and sinister, its widespread appeal and bounty of accolades—multiple festival awards and inclusion on many critics lists, though ultimately not an Oscar nomination —can also be credited to its parochial nature. It captures the disquiet of modern urban life by portraying a narrowly drawn world, one that resonates universally but is distinctly Brazilian.

It opens with a series of black-and-white archival photographs taken on a sugar plantation (a microbe, Mendonça Filho says, planted by Eduardo Coutinho’s classic 1984 documentary about the devastating effects of the Brazilian military dictatorship on the labor movement in the Northeast, Cabra Marcado para Morrer). Sugar cane fields, field hands with their families, workers’ quarters, the plantation house with its wide porch and long rows of shutters. The final still in the series depicts a group of scrubbed-faced females proudly holding up the work credentials that entitle them to unemployment and retirement benefits.

In the next moment, we are close on the spinning heels of a shorts-clad pre-teen roller-skating through a concrete urban terrain, a closed parking lot and playground inside one of Recife’s insular apartment towers that are currently overwhelming traditional single-family homes with their tile roofs and front doors that open onto streets. The camera follows her through the jump-roping, hula-hooping children until the fence line, where a wallflower row of uniformed nannies, the metaphorical descendants of the document-wielding ladies from the sugar mill, keep watch from a distance. These two disparate worlds—one rural in black and white, the other urban and in color, one horizontal, the other inaccessibly vertical, of the servants and the served—are inextricable. “That’s how I see the street,” Mendonça Filho explains, “what happens in the countryside is mirrored in the city.”

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Random events are juxtaposed with carefully placed foreshadowing, only we can’t tell which is which. Everything serves to unnerve. Cars squeal into each other in the middle of a tree-lined intersection. A faceless stranger quickly slips through a house whose owner is on vacation while two other intruders make use of the bed for their own illicit encounter. One boy bounces a soccer ball outside while another plays video games inside. A man fearlessly takes a midnight swim in waters, we are warned, that are shark infested. When the real terror is finally revealed, you’ll long for repeated viewings to pick out the masterfully laid clues.

The soundtrack is a subtle collage of stray city noises: pounding, drilling, sawing, grinding, cracking, popping, and occasional short bursts of popular music from a mobile cart that sells CDs like an Old World peddler sold pots. Reminiscent of Lucrecia Martel’s 2001 La ciénaga the soundscape effectively menaces throughout but never crescendos into a musical score or a pop tune. (Though we are treated to the buoyant “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” sung by Queen and a lovely happy birthday song by Brazilian classical composer Villa-Lobos).

In one scene, a young girl dreams that dozens of shirtless boys, barely distinguishable from the night, are quietly invading her family’s courtyard, a nightmare Mendonça Filho tells me he had as a kid. The look of the scene traces back to Carpenter’s rarely screened Assault on Precinct 13. “I couldn’t avoid it,” he says. “The way he shoots places in widescreen. The way he shoots the suburbs in Halloween. He introduces you to the streets, the houses, the doors, the windows, the people. It’s real, realistic, almost mundane. Then he brings in the fantastic elements, the terror, the horror.” The whole film has the this-could-happen-here feel of Carpenter’s 1980s titles, themselves descendants of Hitchcock’s legacy of inducing fear of the ordinary. Mendonça Filho takes it a step further, revealing the very structure of society as terrifying.

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Bia, the warm heart of the film, is based on a woman that Mendonça Filho had already portrayed in Eletrodomésticas. A critique on the burgeoning consumer culture of Brazil’s rising lower classes, the 22-minute short contains some of the exact setups (sometimes performed in the exact same rooms): the use of the vacuum cleaner to diffuse marijuana smoke, the washing machine’s centrifugal cycle as a tension-relieving device, among them. “Brazil had recently rid of inflation; everyone was happily buying all these appliances and junk,” recalls Mendonça Filho about the 2005 film. “The first Bia was less lovable, less human, more of a symbol of this consumerism.”

He revived her—along with her two children—using a local Pernambucano actor, the marvelous low-key Maeve Jinkings, making the character more likable and, according to the filmmaker, similar to his own mother. “I wanted to make her organic, made of meat, so you could touch her arm, feel her skin, and make her more loving, with her kids.” The children come across as mature beyond their years, dealing calmly with an insomnia-afflicted, weed-addicted mom who, among other episodes, has a spontaneous hair-pulling fight with her sister. Bia’s main preoccupation—a neighbor’s Weimaraner whose endless barking keeps her awake all night and on edge all day—is based on an ongoing incident in the director’s own life. Bia’s kitchen is the filmmaker’s own kitchen. Her street, his.

Mendonça Filho’s choice of actors is almost revolutionary for Brazilian cinema and introduces a cast of outstanding talents to international audiences, most notably Irandhir Santos, the entrepreneurial night watchman (who has supporting roles in Elite Squad 2 and Cinema, Aspirin, and Vultures). Television and movies, at least popular ones, tend to use the famous faces from the country’s media-making capitals, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, which favor the light-skinned, blue-eyed thespians from the southern states largely settled by northern Europeans, even if the character hails from less cosmopolitan areas. Accents, which vary greatly around Brazil, are often exaggerated and become a source of mockery, in the way that heavy southern accents are used in the United States to signify “hick” (and slow-witted). Sadly, they are often as badly done; think Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump or Sally Field in Steel Magnolias. “It plays to stereotype,” says Mendonça Filho. “The problem is people are making these films that don’t know much about it.”

The only actor in Neighboring Sounds who is not local is Florianopolis native Gustavo Jahn, who plays the real estate agent and nephew of the street’s powerful patriarch and who, we learn in the film, had the opportunity to live abroad. “Unfortunately, we do not have enough local film or television or theater to support a school,” Mendonça Filho tells me, so he used many nonprofessionals for the supporting roles and extras. “We were laughing so hard sometimes, other times [were] deeply moved,” he says about the open casting call. “Two very nervous 12-year olds came to audition, holding hands, and wanted to do a scene from High School Musical, which they did by imitating the São Paulo accents of the overdub actors. It was both delightful and creepy.” (Their bit made it into the final cut and their screen tests became part of the bonus features on the DVD release.)

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The film draws on the myths and history of Brazil’s arid, empty northeast, the location of a bloody battle of secession in Canudos and the hinterlands where the folk hero/one-eyed bandit Lampião plundered and killed with his wandering band of cangaceiros like an equatorial Jesse James, inspiring ballads and literatura de cordel. These references are as discrete as the clues in the script and can be missed by outsiders. When one security guard, blind in one eye, is compared unfavorably to Lampião who was shot down Bonnie and Clyde style in 1938, he responds: “But before that, he took so many with him.” Brazil, Mendonça Filho reminds us, is never too far from its past.

The buzz generated by Neighboring Sounds around the world may bring the director far from home for his next project—although not too far from his cinematic comfort zone. He met Mark Peploe, collaborative screenwriter on Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, and Little Buddha, when they both served as jury members at Locarno in the summer of 2012. After seeing Neighboring Sounds in a special screening at the Swiss festival, Peploe found an cinematic affinity with Mendonça Filho, and the two began to discuss a script Peploe had developed with Michelangelo Antonioni that has been languishing since the 1990s. Based on a short story by the great Italian director, it features a character who takes a lover from the lower classes, an upstairs-downstairs dichotomy Mendonça Filho clearly understands. “It’s not the kind of film that is being made today,” he says when I spoke to him again this past December. “It’s very tense; it reminds me of Polanski in the ’60s.”

— Shari Kizirian © 2015

Originally published at Fandor in January 2014 and reposted in May 2016 with the opening of Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius at Cannes


The Rage in Our Machine

Denis Villeneuve Ponders the Missing Piece in Polytechnique


On December 6, 1989, a lone gunman armed with a semiautomatic rifle and a hunting knife entered a classroom at the University of Montreal’s École Polytechnique, separated the students by gender, let the men go, then shot the women. Next, he took to the halls, other classrooms, and the cafeteria, to claim a total of twenty-eight victims. Fourteen of them died. During the spree he shouted that he hated feminists and, in what has become a familiar final act, he turned the gun on himself—said “shit”—and shot and killed himself.

Such news stories no longer shock, even if they sadden, but in 1989, Montreal participated in a collective soul-searching and outpouring of grief unlike anything the city had experienced (the surrounding Mohawk Nation, of course, had seen more than its share—the Oka Crisis came to a head just seven months later). An estimated four thousand mourners accompanied the funeral procession of ten coffins through Old Montreal. The gunman left behind two letters and a suicide note in which he declared himself sane (“a rational erudite”) and blamed feminists—“I have decided to end those viragos”—for taking jobs and benefiting from “the advantages of women,” one of which he names as maternity leave. His rantings included a death list of nineteen prominent local feminists. Several Polytechnique students later committed suicide, leaving notes explaining that they were unable to recover from the calamity.

For the twentieth anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, as it became known, local son Denis Villeneuve decided to make a feature film, basing the script on interviews with witnesses and survivors. As he told reporters when the film was released, he saw it “as a way to heal a wound.” (To reach both the French- and English-speaking populations, he made two versions.) Villeneuve has been making international cinema news since Incendies, his gripping 2010 feature about war’s cascading damage, appeared on every major critics circle list and garnered a host of prestigious accolades, including BAFTA and Oscar nominations in the foreign language category.


Explorations of violence—psychological, physical, random, calculated—are also at the heart of his subsequent features. Torture in a bleak American suburb in Prisoners and the man confronting his double in Enemies, both starring Jake Gyllenhaal. This year, Villeneuve continues his Hollywood roll, exploring violence through his latest release, Sicario, starring Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin, a chapter in the drug war on the Mexican-American border, which competed at Cannes. In June, he began production in Montreal on Story of Your Life, with Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker and adapted from a short story about a linguist hired to decipher the language of a race of aliens who has made contact with Earth [later released as Arrival]. He is also “attached” to direct the sequel to Ridley Scott’s hallowed (and harrowing) sci-fi noir, Blade Runner.

Before embarking on Polytechnique, Villeneuve had built a reputation in Canada for striking music videos and artful short films. His playful 1994 documentary REW FFWD, about a foreigner in Jamaica, is reminiscent of Rouch’s Jaguar in its sardonic critique of Western views of the “Other.” (Completing the pedigree, Villeneuve cites as an influence fellow French-Canadian Michel Brault, whose innovative camerawork on Les raquetteurs inspired Rouch, who after seeing the documentary at the Flaherty Seminar, hired Brault to shoot Chronicle of a Summer—the rest is documentary history.) Villeneuve’s short experimental parable about insatiable gluttony, Next Floor, won two awards at the Cannes International Critics’ Week, and his first feature, 32nd Day of August on Earth, played as part of Un Certain Regard in 1999.

Villeneuve chose to shoot Polytechnique in black and white (to avoid the graphic depiction of blood) but, in other ways, the film bears the hallmarks of his distinctive style. Its narrative is a nonlinear puzzle; with events reordered along a more suspenseful timeline, reveals delivered with precise control. He favors the head-on dread-inducing tracking camera that Kubrick used to introduce us to The Shining’s terrifying twins, and it has become something of a signature for Villeneuve.

The story of the massacre and its aftermath is told through a central duality, like the twin siblings in Incendies, Gyllenhaal’s frustrated detective and Hugh Jackman’s enraged father of Prisoners, and Adam and his double Anthony in Enemy. In Polytechnique, we meet the killer, sometimes seeing the action from his perspective, but the main characters are a female student who has just been hired for her dream job and a male student who tried to help to the wounded during the attack. (Though fictional, they are based on real-life survivors Nathalie Provost and Sarto Blais, who later killed himself over grief.—his parents’ suicide quickly followed.)

Villeneuve’s work is also peppered with talismans of the written word that sometimes drive the plot: the maze drawings in Prisoners, the sealed envelope in Enemy, and the mother’s letters to her children in Incendies. But, often, what is written in Villeneuve’s films confounds rather than illuminates. For Polytechnique, such confounding text was readymade. In addition to a cryptic note to mother, we see the killer write his suicide letter, which had been imbued with great power because its full contents were not divulged until a year after the attack. By revealing it earlier in the film, Villeneuve neutralizes its power. Yet its mishmash of excuses still offers little insight into the killer’s motive.


Villeneuve ties off each fractured storyline in his films, solving the plot’s mysteries in a satisfying and unexpected ways. The family relations are horrifyingly delineated in Incendies. The girls are found and the perpetrator is named in Prisoners. Enemy’s doppelganger is exorcised. But the films leave behind an overall unease. We have been watching, riveted, as the dark violent prurient weak of human nature emerge and wreak their havoc. Even as the characters offer justifications, there’s no real accounting for the evil that men do. Missing this puzzle piece, the picture cannot be complete. That piece, Villeneuve seems to be reminding us, has been missing since Romulus killed Remus over real estate and Cain struck down Abel in a field—that kind of resolution will always elude us. It is our original sin and cannot never be purged, only expiated.

Canada instituted an annual National Day of Remembrance the year after the attack. Three monuments have been constructed in memoriam. The massacre energized the women’s movement and gun control advocates, led by one survivor, eventually winning stricter regulations for rifle licenses. The rules (later overturned in every province excepting Quebec) and improved police response are credited with lowering the body count in the Dawson College shooting in 2006. (The Concordia University professor denied tenure used handguns, poorly regulated at the time of his 1992 spree, which claimed four.) The resultant self-examination brought to light the city’s many flaws: rampant discrimination against immigrant populations (the shooter Marc Lépin was born Gamil Gharbi) and the thick vein of antifeminism that runs throughout the heavily Roman Catholic province (Quebec was last in Canada to institute full female suffrage, in 1940) continues to this day. But the puzzle of Lépin cannot be solved.

Polytechnique met with resistance when it was released in 2008 and a nationwide debate ensued about whether the film was worth seeing. Who would want to relive that terrible day in such visual detail? One critic concluded: “It’s a dark, dark event in Montreal’s history, Canada’s history, and you better have a real darn good reason to make that film, and I don’t think he did.” No one can be blamed for not wanting to see the film. Because in fact there will be no resolution, no catharsis. Like for the event itself, there’s no manhunt, no trial, no revenge to exact, no chance to obliterate the evil and its doers. But that’s not why Villeneuve makes films. What Villeneuve’s film does is shift focus away from the killer, in fact he never even names him. And, as with his other characters, he resists the urge to try to solve him. Instead, what Villeneuve does offer in Polytechnique is to turn over the last word to a survivor.

— Shari Kizirian © 2015

Originally published at Fandor’s online blog in August 2015

Beyond the Bleeding Lede

Caetano Gotardo staunches the sensationalism in The Moving Creatures

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The Moving Creatures

We inhabit a pulp fiction universe. News, magazine features, unscripted TV, crime-time series, movie trailers are all splattered with the bleeding lede and dug-up dirt tailored to grab and hold our attention, until the next salacious thing comes along. We plumb new shallows with click-bait, which constantly screeches at us with empty promises of substance, or at least something juicy. Few get past the gushing artery. We simply tie it off with a few key words—Lone Gunman, Bad Parent, Pederast—shake our heads and click on.

Even as the stories that form the basis of this triptych film are “ripped from the headlines,” The Moving Creatures shuns the sensationalism and soap-opera histrionics normally employed in their telling, and retelling. To make his first fiction feature, writer and director Caetano Gotardo even eschews the who-what-when-where of nut-graph journalism to reframe the stories and refocus our attention on other facts. As Gotardo told Cinética magazine when his film was released two years ago, “We only get a piece, one point of view, and never see them as a whole …. What interested me was the environment, what was around these situations, the everyday.”

Before any proverbial dead body or tragic circumstances are disclosed (but never actually shown), we meet families, observe mundane rituals, are privy to future plans, not to answer how could this have ever happened but to slow down our reaction to it, inhibit the rush to judgment. Each of the three vignettes closes with a lament sung by the central character who is not the culprit nor a victim but rather a mother who has been thrust into a trauma completely out of her control. The songs have a flat melodic line and like the stories themselves do not reach emotionally manipulative crescendos yet are still deeply felt.

Part of a loose film collective based in São Paulo called Filmes do Caixote (literally, “crate” or “bin”), Gotardo has maintained a close affiliation with fellow students from the University of São Paulo School of Communication and Arts (ECA). They share ideas as stories are incubated, critiquing scripts as they are developed, and then, if possible, take part in some aspect of each other’s productions. For example, Moving Creatures’ editor Juliana Rojas wrote and directed Trabalhar Cansa (Hard Labor), a minimalist horror movie that exhumes centuries-old social structures that still undergird contemporary Brazilian society. Her Hard Labor writing partner Marco Dutra also wrote Moving Creatures’ music with director Gotardo, who, in turn, edited as well as played a small role in Hard Labor. Filmes do Caixote collaborators, which include two filmmakers in Rio de Janeiro, also work outside the collective and continue to make shorts, as Rojas told one interviewer in 2013, “it’s all part of the same artistic pursuit.”

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Trabalhar Cansa

None of their films have yet to break through on Brazil’s theatrical circuit despite national quotas for domestic film exhibition. They have toured national festivals, garnering some critical attention for dealing obliquely but effectively with what many hope will remain unaddressed. A few of their movies have been chosen for exhibition abroad, including Gotardo’s short Areia (“Sand”), which opened the 2008 Critics’ Week at Cannes, and Hard Labor, which debuted in Cannes’s Un Certain Regard in 2011. The most well-known to date of the collective’s output and released on DVD by the art-house distributor Lume Filmes, Hard Labor did not reach much of a wider public, facing familiar competition at the box office and in streaming queues: slick comedies starring popular actors of the monolithic Globo network and the superhero action movies out of Hollywood. The Moving Creatures—in Portuguese, O Que Se Move (literally, “What Moves”)—won best fiction feature and best actress for Fernanda Vianna (the mother of the third story) during Rio de Janeiro’s IV Director’s Week. Still, it is practically impossible to rent. Perhaps distribution by the U.S.-based Cinema Slate will spark renewed interest in The Moving Creatures at home.

Even so, it will remain difficult for audiences primed for pulp fiction aesthetics. The suspense created in the initial story generates an expectation for greater tension in the next—which could be blamed on our own (my own, anyway) previous conditioning. Rather than upping the ante from story to story, Gotardo carefully built emotional bridges between them, linking the despair in the concluding dirges to a similar emotional state in the following story. “[T]he cut is something violent, an abandonment,” the director explained to Cinética’s interviewer, “it was important that the characters echoed each other.”

With The Moving Creatures, Gotardo reaches for something necessary. If the stories we choose to tell inform our world, how we tell them is equally important. The perpetual casting of heroes and villains might satisfy some primordial urge but while we continue to be outraged by one and wait to be saved by the other, we ignore other facts. If we slowed down, looked more carefully to consider events and characters as a whole, as porous to the surroundings as the tree root is to the ground, as the cloud is to moisture—maybe if we told and retold that—we might not only foster a more compassionate way to view the world but also to shape one. Whatever else it is, The Moving Creatures raises hope that we might.

— Shari Kizirian © 2015

Originally published in September 2015 on Fandor’s Keyframe blog


The Good, the Bad, and the Unpardonable

2015 in Digital Effects

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Ant Man

A colleague once told me fighting digital exhibition is like an old man shaking his shoe at the sky. I resisted for a long time but if DVD, DCP, and streaming, or whatever comes next make more movies available to me then so be it. Scorsese, or Nolan, or Dean, or Tarantino can rile me up again quite easily but I had a kind of shut-me-up revelation a few years ago talking to Deutsche Kinemathek’s Martin Koerber about the restoration of Pandora’s Box. When I said how great it would be, after the digital fix, to produce a 35mm print for exhibition, his response surprised me. “You know,” I am paraphrasing, “we make allowances all the time for film’s artifacts but, digital’s, we just aren’t used to them yet.

I overlook the obvious back-projection that puts Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman on a studio bench and not in a Rio de Janeiro public square in Notorious and revel in the scratches and hisses that sometimes accompany the rare viewing of classics on 35mm. So, what’s all my outrage over weirdly glowing facial features and the anemic geometry of digital dropout? Will I not only get used to but even one day feel warm pangs of nostalgia for these digital artifacts? In this year of amazing strides (Ant Man) and backslides (Jurassic World) in moviemaking with digital tools, here’s my take on what is pardonable, what isn’t, and who’s to blame: digital or analog

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A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Blaze of Semi-realism
Can’t set everything on fire as A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, a pristine piece of mise en scène and cinematography if there ever was one, proves. Near the end director Roy Andersson cooks a rotating copper barrel full of slaves as musical entertainment for the tuxedoed elite. I imagined an escape hatch for the actors who played the human fodder and felt nothing but relief when I recognized the disembodied look of the flames. Mad Max: Fury Road makes great use of composite fire effects as well. By the time I could tell the blaze looked a tad hinky I was already riveted to the next furious thing.

Watery Worlds
Moratorium on all big water movies, please. Perfect Storm back in 2000 did a credible job but had some pretty transparent moments. In Life of Pi, as good as its effects overall were, the water looked so fake at times that it might have been better to animate the whole movie. George Miller used superimpositions to great effect for the Citadel waterfall in Fury Road, but subsequent scrutiny furrowed my brow. (The first time I was too busy holding onto my seat like a life raft.) Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea couldn’t cobble together enough realistic water-meets-whale scenes for its trailer. Thar, I’m thinking, she will blow.


The Digital Flats
Watching Chantal Akerman’s 2002 video From the Other Side, with its long-lasting distant shots of the twinkling borderline between the U.S. and Mexico, I began to squint my eyes at the movie screen trying to imagine the mesmerizing depth it would have had on celluloid. Thirteen years and much advancement later we have Sicario. Wow, Roger Deakins’s sunsetting skies that engulfed everything and the expert matte shots that put you inside that airless southwestern reality. His drone shots of the Mexican desert did just the opposite, eliminating texture and topography, turning that undulating battleground into a single dimension abstraction.

007’s Blooming Nostrils
I envy Sam Mendes his dailies as he went all old-school with Spectre, not only shooting the stunning Mexican Day of the Dead opening on film but cleverly deploying all the Bond tropes, the first utterance of his name and then the long delay before cuing the trumpets and guitar roll of the original 007 fanfare. Old school is a running theme, as Spectre constantly contrasts the venerable stones of trustworthy old London with the glass and steel of new suspicious, surveillance state London. But by the time Bond is searching for Blofeld through the undistinguishable digital murk of the city’s underbelly, I had lost interest. Then a detail caught my eye—the preternatural glow of Bond’s upturned nose. A chromatic aberration, or blooming, I’m told, it looked like he sneezed a halo. At least I started paying attention again.

Making Up, Also Hard to Do
Anyone remember a few years ago being shocked that that was Angelina Jolie underneath that gender switching makeup in Salt? (She’s way too skinny to be a guy but that’s another kind of wrong.) This year’s big transformation, Johnny Depp’s as the balding Whitey Bulger is pretty good, but it’s the Southie accent and the blue-hot center of his inner psychopath that keeps him believable as Boston’s biggest liver-stained thug. But Ant Man impressed me most with the inverse technique—the young-ifying (a better neologism may arise for this technology) of Michael Douglas, all done digitally, I’ve read. Yeah sure, he has a bit too much of a youthful glow but then other perfections took over: Ant Man getting small in the tub (an excellent—limited—water effect), clinging to the spinning record, and sprinting along the barrel of a gun. Then there’s Thomas the Tank, a seamless composite Hitchcock would have killed for.

Superhero Thin
I willingly suspend all disbelief for Ridley Scott and understand not risking Matt Damon’s life again for a part (hell, I couldn’t get through The Machinist, watching Bale literally dying before my eyes) but that moment when The Martian’s bone-skinny double (yes, I’m worried about him, too) puts on the spacesuit and fills it out like the buff supersizer Damon really is had me choking back incredulous guffaws. For a film about sciencing the shit out of everything, it seemed a suspension of disbelief too far. But I got over it pretty quickly and was soon choking back another emotion as Damon rocketed, al fresco, into space.

A Final Note: 3D
Maybe there’s something wrong with my eyes because the only thing that looks three-dimensional to me are the subtitles (most everything is subtitled where I live) floating out above the heads of those brave folks in the first rows. Otherwise it’s like watching a panned-and-scanned television version, with everything else a smudge except for the frame’s central focus. In Everest, I couldn’t figure out what was happening on those vertiginous stairs in Nepal, until I realized extras were walking up and down them. The best 3D effect in Hunger Games was the Lionsgate logo, those clouds I believed. Not sure whose fault it is, the theater’s, the glasses’, the movie’s, or mine, but I doubt I’ll ever get used to it.

— Shari Kizirian © 2015

Originally published on December 11, 2015, on the editorial pages of Fandor

Bombs Away!

Hollywood’s Ultimate Inciting Incident

Operation Crossroads – Baker Event, Bikini Atoll, 1946

A nuke explodes in a copper mine under Utah’s Canyonlands as Christian Slater doggedly pursues a cackling mad John Travolta. A white-hot nuclear cloud mushrooms off the coast of the Florida Keys as Jamie Lee Curtis dangles from a helicopter, awaiting rescue by her superspy husband Arnold Schwarzenegger. A 500 (or so) kiloton thermonuclear device is set off in the Ural Mountains as a smokescreen for a lucrative black market deal that Nicole Kidman and George Clooney are then tasked with breaking. Another stolen bomb is dropped on a Baltimore sports arena despite Ben Affleck’s best efforts to stop it.

Since the 1950s, the threat of nuclear war has proliferated among American popular cinema as the ultimate inciting incident, from Fail Safe to Dr. Strangelove, from The Hunt for Red October to Die Hard, acknowledging the do-or-everybody-die nature of war games played with a quiver full of nukes. It’s become such short-hand for dire that this year’s A Good Day to Die Hard doesn’t even bother building a plausible explanation for another mess McClane finds himself in. His CIA-rookie son mumbles a few non sequiturs about uranium-cake stockpiling and Chernobyl. (It’s so preposterously convoluted, in fact, it could be a spoof on the Bush administration’s mendacious cajoling for a coalition of the willing before invading Iraq.)

My conspiracy-theory-prone mind thinks of the links between the CIA Office of Public Affairs and two of last year’s resulting films, Zero Dark Thirty and Argo. Having recently read Tricia Jenkins’s The CIA in Hollywood, I wonder if the Department of Defense has a similar sinister links, links that others might also accept as benign.

B-pictures in the postwar period often used atomic terror to frighten Americans into supporting the United States policy of deterrence. Alfred E. Green’s Invasion U.S.A., the It Could Happen Here for nuclear war, conveys through news reports the horrors that atomic warfare brings yet fails to condemn the use of these weapons. In fact, the entire didactic point is to stockpile stockpile stockpile. The main character complains that he’s not allowed to enlist because the military services lack weaponry. “Soldier’s no good without a gun, a sailor’s no good without a ship.” If only there were more firepower available! (Sounds like the argument the NRA is currently making for guns in schools.)

Henry Fonda in Fail Safe, 1964

At the other end of the Hollywood political spectrum, Fail Safe (1964) brought us to the terrifying brink of nuclear holocaust because of an error in the system. A wayward plane sets off a series of automatic “safeties” that lead inevitably to the launching of nuclear missiles. All-out disaster is avoided only because an earnest Henry Fonda sacrifices New York City in exchange for Soviet restraint. The good guys lose, making them seem even better, and the rest of America (and the U.S.S.R.) is spared.

When the Cold War ended, nukes became one way terrorists and supposed rogue nations could menace at the multiplex. But while used as a high-stakes, no-turning-back narrative device, the onscreen implications of actual nuclear explosions are relatively, well, inconsequential.

Healthy butterflies flutter in the wake of the underground explosion in John Woo’s 1996 Broken Arrow, the DOD’s term for a nuclear weapons accident. Slater reassures Samantha Mathis by telling her if the butterflies can make it, so will they. No one’s skin even gets singed in the big blast at the end of True Lies (1994) and Affleck’s future wife emerges beautifully alive after the explosion in The Sum of All Fears (2002), even as she’s a surgical resident at a hospital near the blast zone. In Mimi Leder’s The Peacemaker (1997), a nuclear bomb poignantly (if action-packed has room for poignancy) kills an elderly caretaker couple whom we meet only for an instant, but the fallout is as minimal as the concern. To Leder’s credit, the purloined bomb headed for Manhattan is treated as dire (it never goes off) but only because it would impact Terra americanus. The people, flora, fauna, and ground water of the Urals, oh well. Our swimming pool water is still radiation free!

My childhood memories are papered over with the imagery of the Cold War era, including the ridiculous duck-and-cover instructions given in elementary school. An adulthood lived in the shadow of the apparently never-ending War on Terror, I now worry alongside the rest of America about the specter of a dirty bomb that the Cheney cabal conjured during those eight long years to scare the dissent out of us. I’ve also worried that recent depictions of the consequences of nuclear are too glib and might accumulate into a creeping acceptance of the inevitability of a nuclear war, a manufactured consent that could send missiles flying over to North Korea or Iran, really, any day now. In the same way that cop shows erode the average citizen’s understanding of their rights. Just watch any episode of the Special Victims Unit of the Law and Order franchise—the guilty don’t deserve them; the innocent don’t need them. The Japanese of Nagasaki and Hiroshima have yet to have their Shoah or Schindler’s List, image-based stories that stick in the public’s consciousness.

Trinity Test – Manhattan Project, 1945

On the other hand, with all the gun-toting heroes and villains that populate the films we see, the majority of the moviegoing public seem to grasp the idea that shooting others is bad. They don’t it—or do—knowing the horrible consequences, maybe even a little because of the movies. Considering the number of nukes around, it’s a wonder they don’t “go off” more often. Not that we have any control over why or when the button gets pushed. In a recent Scientific American article about what really ended World War II, the author compares the nuclear arsenal to a T-Rex: “[O]ne could possibly imagine a use for such a creature in extreme situations, but by and large it only serves as an unduly sensitive and enormously destructive creature whose powers are waiting to be unleashed on to the world. Having the beast around is just not worth its supposed benefits anymore, especially when most of these benefits are only perceived and have been extrapolated from a sample size of one.”

Maybe I worry too much. Documentaries abound and give us ample warning. Jon Else’s 1980 The Day After Trinity reveals Oppenheimer’s change of heart about building atomic weapons. Peter Kuran’s Trinity and Beyond (1995) uses previously classified films shot of nuclear tests, atomic to thermonuclear, Trinity to Castle Bravo, simultaneously showing the awesome power of these weapons and their incongruously photogenic qualities. Atomic Wounds (2006) documents the long-term effects of the bomb’s fallout through the eyes of a doctor who helped victims on August 6, 1945, and still tends to the Hibakusha (survivors of the bombings) today.

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John Carpenter’s Dark Star, 1974

Besides, other special effects aren’t accompanied by disclaimers. No “Don’t Try This At Home” warnings precede a scene of Jackie Chan jumping off a downtown building onto a storefront awning. The consequences of regular bombs exploding have even been played for laughs as far back as movies have been made. See the comical aftermath of a “conventional” bomb going off in Buster Keaton’s Cops (1922). (One stand-out actor is hilariously zombie-like in tattered clothes.) We can laugh at it and still take that threat seriously. Try to say the word “bomb” at an airport, before or after September 11th, 2001.

Still, I wish more films that reach a wide audience had the cautionary effect Dr. Strangelove’s dark humor or even marginal fare like John Carpenter’s 1974 Dark Star, a low-budget spoof of both Strangelove and 2001. A four-man crew trolls the universe in their spaceship toting an arsenal of nuclear bombs, destroying unstable planets, making space safe for colonization. Their sole stated purpose is to blow shit up. After they manage, for the third time, to dissuade bomb #20 from automatically detonating, one crew member sighs with enormous relief and says, “You know we really gotta disarm the bomb.” No one ever does.

— Shari Kizirian © 2013

Originally published with clips on Keyframe, Fandor’s daily cinema blog in April 2013